Why I’m Against Genetically Modified Foods

OR: Stop Defending GMOs Because You Love Science.

Recently I’ve noticed a lot of people frowning upon GM dissent, generally claiming that the science is sound and the food is not dangerous. However, the issues are significantly more complex, and saying GMOs are okay because they are perfectly safe to eat could be logically compared to saying that food made by slaves from stolen goods is okay simply because it is safe to eat; unfortunately, one merit does not cancel out other problems, regardless of how much we may love science.

A recent article I read on this subject criticized GM critics for being against science, while at the same time making large claims without citations, turning the argument into a straw man, and in general supporting itself with one man’s opinion. Excuse me, who is being unscientific here? Someone has to attempt to be rational, so I’ll give it my best shot. Keep in mind that what I’m not trying to say is that GMOs are inherently or theoretically bad; I’m proposing that the mainstream, industrial uses of them are actively harmful, and that supporting these in the supermarket contributes to this harm. Okay, here are a few of the main problems with GMOs at large scale as practiced today:

  1. A lack of genetic diversity is fragile and dangerous. All species need genetic diversity to survive, so when a disease or pest comes along, ideally some are naturally resistant and can repopulate. This isn’t just a theoretical “nice to have” for our crops. Lack of diversity is why the fruit we all know as a banana today is the inferior Cavendish variety, instead of what our grandparents knew as a tastier and less bruise-prone banana, the once-predominant “Gros Michel.” We lost that superior banana strain to Panama Disease, because all the plants were genetically identical and thus all prone to the disease. (Not surprisingly, a new strain of Panama Disease is now threatening the also genetically identical Cavendish.) On the other hand, genetic diversity is why we still have wine despite Phylloxera; not all vines were susceptible to the pest, and by their genetic grace, to this day vines are generally grafted onto rootstock of resistant varieties that allow them to survive. What’s going to happen when the next disease or pest hits a global GM staple? I chose this point first as I think it is a great example of why we need to consider not just the direct but also the indirect and long-term consequences of GMOs.
  2. The modified traits are anti-consumer. The modifications that I’ve read about are generally for improved yield or stronger crops, which might be helpful to a farmer, but isn’t a reason for me to be excited about it in a supermarket. This is especially true as these traits often come at the cost of pro-consumer traits: “Efforts to breed new varieties of crops that provide greater yield, pest resistance and climate adaptability have allowed crops to grow bigger and more rapidly,” reported Davis, “but their ability to manufacture or uptake nutrients has not kept pace with their rapid growth.” As that article points out, the vitamin and mineral levels in industrially produced food have been dropping significantly due to the selection pressures of industrial agriculture. Another troubling example is engineering herbicide / pesticide tolerance into plants so that farmers can heavily spray their plants. This causes pesticide poisoning and birth defects in workers and their children, and contributes to coastal dead zones.
  3. The beneficial traits don’t even beat small-scale, organic farming. While it may seem that increased yields and stronger crops is great for feeding the starving people of the world, we should consider a few things. First, is this even true? Well, “data compiled by the Rodale Institute’s Farming Systems Trial (FST) shows that…in every single category, organic farming systems proved to be far more viable and sustainable than any conventional or GM system. Initiated back in 1981, Rodale’s FST is the longest running, side-by-side comparison of organic and chemical agriculture that has ever been conducted in the US.” In other words, just because GM crops can improve the yield of industrial crops, doesn’t mean there isn’t a more efficient way. Second, are farms sending any supposed increased yields to starving children in poor countries? Or are they using these advantages at industrial scale to lower prices and push family farms out of business?

All that, and I didn’t even have to touch on the evils of Monsanto, which simply can’t be ignored when they potentially control 98% of the US soybean market and 79% of the US corn market.

Primarily, I see the problems with GMOs existing at the industrial scale, which is precisely where the pro-GM campaigning is taking place in politics (see for example the dramatic campaign outspending for Prop 37 by industry). If there are scientists doing good things with GM that can address the genetic diversity problem, I don’t see anything wrong with that. However, it seems very irrational — and well, unscientific — to pretend that sound theoretical science in isolation is reason to ignore real-world negative consequences in practice. The question when buying a GM food in a grocery store should not be “is the science behind this food cool?” but “does this purchase and everything that entails make the world a better place?”